Posts Tagged ‘Maria Muldaur’

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dylan!

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

Whenever a pop culture icon reaches an age of, oh, fifty or greater that ends with a zero, the mass media finds itself cluttered for a few days with rethought biographies, appreciations, and assessments of said icon’s influence on our popular culture. The zero rule has held true again in the past few weeks regarding Bob Dylan, who turns seventy today: I’ve seen numerous magazine pieces and book reviews in the past weeks re-examining the life, music and impact of the Bard of Hibbing, and I expect that if I watch one of the national newscasts tonight – I generally watch CBS – I’ll see a piece that looks at all of those things and adds to it a commentary on the aging of the Baby Boom generation.

(I should note that there was not long ago a similar appreciation and assessment of a pop culture icon for a birthday that did not end in zero: In June of 2006, Paul McCartney was, quite appropriately, thus feted and assessed as he turned sixty-four.)

I’ve written and presented at this blog over the years a fair amount of my own assessments and appreciations of Mr. Dylan’s work. I think it’s almost enough to say this morning that Bob Dylan’s music is one of the foundations on which my own life in music comfortably rests. He wasn’t the first artist whose music captivated me – those honors, such as they might be, go to Al Hirt, John Barry and the Beatles, with Dylan coming along shortly thereafter. But, as he did for the culture at large, it was Dylan who taught me that the music I listened to – and the music I wrote – could be lyrically and topically challenging.

(That lyrical liberation brought with it its own burden, one that has been hefted by creative people around the world, many of them better at their crafts than I: It’s all too easy for writers to lapse into Dylanese while crafting lyrics, with the resulting product coming off more as pale imitation than influenced creation. That can happen, of course, with any artist and in the context of any art-form. I’ve discarded many a lyric because it comes off as faux Dylan or stale Springsteen, and I assume – as an example – that many screen writers have reread their works in progress and mourned the presence of limp Scorsese.)

So, rather than assess, analyze or rehash Bob Dylan’s career and influence here this morning, I thought I’d just stack up a set of six cover versions of his work that I enjoy or admire. My favorite among the cover versions of Dylan’s tunes is not listed among them; I’ve written before about Eric Clapton’s bluesy reconstruction of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” during the 1992 celebration of Dylan’s career. But the cover versions that follow rank high on my list.

The album Tangled Up In Blues: Songs of Bob Dylan was released by the House of Blues in 1999, pairing a selection of twelve Dylan tunes with performers steeped in the blues, rock or R&B traditions. Among the performers and tunes paired on Tangled Up In Blues were Taj Mahal with “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry,” Leon Russell with “Watching the River Flow,” Mavis Staples with “Gotta Serve Somebody” and R.L. Burnside with “Everything Is Broken.” But one of my favorite tracks on the CD is “Ballad of a Thin Man” as interpreted by James Solberg. Solberg, whose band spent much of the 1990s backing bluesman Luther Allison, delivers a biting performance, instrumentally and vocally, of Dylan’s long-ago shredding – if legend is to be believed – of a New York Times reporter.

Covers of “Blowin’ In The Wind” are not scarce, of course. I’m not going to even try to estimate how many there might have been, but four of them reached the Billboard Hot 100 (or bubbled under): Peter, Paul & Mary in 1963, Stan Getz in 1964, Stevie Wonder in 1966 and the Edwin Hawkins Singers in 1969. The version that soul performer O.V. Wright released in early 1970 wound up as the B-Side to a tune titled “Love The Way You Love,” which made neither the Billboard Hot 100 nor the magazine’s R&B Top 40. I found Wright’s version of the Dylan tune on a 2010 collection on the Ace label titled How Many Roads: Black America Sings Bob Dylan.

Maria Muldaur has moved in and out of public view for years, often performing in a folk-roots vein since growing up – according to All-Music Guide – in New York’s Greenwich Village and then joining, in the mid-1960s, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Likely best-known for her 1974 hit, “Midnight at the Oasis,” she’s released in recent years a series of bluesy, rootsy albums, one of which was the 2006 CD Heart Of Mine (Love Songs Of Bob Dylan). That’s where I found her very good cover of “Buckets of Rain” from Dylan’s 1975 classic album Blood on the Tracks.

Of all of the folks who’ve covered a Dylan tune, one of the least likely names I’ve come across is that of Julie London, the late 1950s and early 1960s chanteuse. Described by AMG as a “sultry, smoky-voiced master of understatement,” London shone on titles like “Cry Me A River,” “September In The Rain” and “Black Coffee.” That’s why her turn on “Mighty Quinn (Quinn, The Eskimo)” seems at first thought to be a mismatch and at second thought to be surreal. But the understatement that AMG cites makes the tune work for London. At least it works for me. The track comes from London’s 1969 album Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, on which she also takes on – among other things – the title tune (which was a No. 4 hit for the Ohio Express; London’s version, released in 1968, bubbled under at No. 125) and the venerable “Louie Louie.”

Odd pairings are, it seems, easy to find when one is digging into covers of Bob Dylan tunes. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” remains one of Dylan’s most cryptic and most bitter songs, a seeming stream-of-consciousness epic that timed out at 7:33 on his 1965 masterpiece, Bringing It All Back Home. So seeing the tune listed with a running time of 3:49 on an album by R&B master and one-time gospel prodigy Billy Preston can bring all sorts of cognitive dissonance to the fore. But through either the song’s durability or Preston’s skill and talent, the cover version works (and I’d vote for a combination of the attributes of the song and the singer). The track comes from Preston’s 1973 album, Everybody Likes Some Kind Of Music.

And I’ve saved one of my personal favorites for the last spot. During the first iteration of this blog, I wrote about the three albums released in the 1960s by Bobby Jameson. (Those posts have now been archived and are available here.) The first Jameson album I posted was 1969’s Working!, and after I wrote about it, Bobby got in touch with me. During those first few months of our friendship, he offered me a track from those 1969 sessions that had been pulled from the album and had never been widely heard. Even after a few years, I find Bobby’s take on Dylan’s “To Ramona” to be world-weary, almost desolate and utterly lovely: